Do you really know your protein?

Written by Sarah Gunther

Australia is obsessed with protein. Everyone has their opinion of the “ideal amount” to eat. There are blogs recommending up to 330g of pure protein for bodybuilders a day! “How do you get your protein”,  is the first question vegetarians and vegans get about their dietary choices. 

Unfortunately, a lot of us are misinformed about what quality protein is and how much is actually enough.

In the 2011-2012 ABS Australian Health Survey, the average Australian’s protein consumption was only 18% of their total daily food intake, which is pretty low for a protein-obsessed country. So why is that?

The majority of protein consumption has been from biscuits, cakes, pastries and fast food (38.4%), that is more than meat (beef, lamb, pork), poultry and dairy combined. That means Australians are eating mostly poor sources of protein which are high in carbohydrates and saturated fat. Which explains why fats and carbohydrates are so abundant in the Australian diet.

So what is protein and why is it so important?

Protein is an essential macronutrient which is important building blocks for bones, muscles, cartilage and blood. They also play a part in the production of neurotransmitters, tissue repair, growth of hair and skin and healthy DNA replication. Eating a variety of protein-rich foods also allows sufficient intake of essential vitamins and minerals which help with energy production, sleep quality and stress tolerance.

How much protein should I eat?

For years, the Australian Government Guidelines (Nutrient Reference Values) declared that adults under the age of 70 should consume 0.75g of protein per kilo of body weight for women and 0.84g per kilo of body weight for men. However, according to new research from the CSIRO, this is not enough.

Some online articles have suggested protein be 15-25% of the total dietary intake. It would be preferable to be on the upper end of that range if you were calculating your intake that way.

However, more specifically, protein intake ranging between 1.2 and 1.6g per kg of body weight (non gender specific) is more effective in decreasing fat mass while maintaining/increasing muscle mass. This level of protein intake has also been shown to reduce cravings, improve satiety and increase energy levels.

Research suggests adequate consumption of protein should be no more than 25-30g  per meal. This is the most that will be absorbed in one meal, which helps with management of hunger and muscle metabolism. 

Eating protein from a variety of sources are important too, including: lean meats, dairy, eggs and plant-based proteins such as tofu and legumes/beans. Try to limit the amount of overly processed sources of proteins.

Is there such thing as too much protein?

The answer is yes.

Excess protein can cause weight gain, constipation, diarrhoea and increase cardiovascular risk. There is evidence that people with kidney problems such as chronic kidney disease or kidney stones should restrict their protein intake.

How do I calculate my protein intake?

The CSIRO have a calculated daily protein requirements for weight loss here (page 10) :

For proper guidance and an individualised calculation, it is recommended to see a nutritionist or dietician.

How do I know how much protein is in foods?

There are many food apps out there like My Fitness Pal ® and MyPlate ® which can calculate the amount of protein you’re eating or help with portion sizes. Alternatively, you can download the table below  here.

High Protein Foods:

Meal plan example - For a person 70kg @ 1.2g/kg BW:

Here is a sample meal plan which has 84g of protein, using the food chart provided above:

Breakfast: Two small poached eggs with grilled tomato = 12g

Morning tea: 100g plain yoghurt with blueberries and 30g mixed linseeds, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds = 14g

Lunch: 65g (approx 1C) cooked chickpeas in a rocket, cabbage, carrot, onion, cucumber salad and a lemon cumin dressing = 6g

Afternoon tea: 30g nuts, 1 green apple and 30g cheese = 14g

Dinner: 100g grilled salmon with 3/4C quinoa and steamed greens = 38g

This equates to 84g of protein throughout the day.

Written by Sarah Gunther 

BHSc Nutrition

Sarah Gunther is a qualified nutritionist and professional chef. This article is for information purposes and general advice only. It is not meant to be used to diagnose or treat any condition. If you have any questions about protein intake or any medical conditions, please see a Nutritionist or Dietician. 

Rima Alijew